A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Friday, May 19, 2006

She-Hulk #3: The Ghost of Bailey Briggs

She-Hulk #3
Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Juan Bobillo

Bailey Briggs is an aeronautics engineer who is murdered at his job. Bailey's boss, Maxwell Newton, is charged with the murder, mostly because every last bit of the physical evidence points to Mr. Newton (i.e. fingerprints, voice recording). In fact, the only exculpatory evidence in Mr. Newton's favor is the testimony of Bailey Briggs.

You see, the ghost of Bailey Briggs has continued to roam the earth, and contacted Dr. Strange (see last issue) for help. Mr. Newton's attorneys have come to She-Hulk's law firm because "the courts won't acknowledge [Briggs'] existence," and thus won't allow his testimony.

At the trial, it's said that Bailey's testimony has been excluded because "He's dead, and as a dead man, he has no rights in a court of law." Jen calls The Thing to the stand, and through his testimony, she manages to convince the court to allow Bailey's testimony because of the possibility he might come back to life at a later date.

CBR poster, and new SoD member, Sandy Hausler has had several exchanges with Dan Slott about the law in She-Hulk issues. Among Dan's assertions is that the presence of the superhuman and supernatural in the Marvel Universe would have had such an impact on the MU's legal history, that it's unfair to judge the law as presented in comics by our legal principles.

My (and Sandy's) response to that argument is for another time, but the reason I bring it up now is because I can't help but think that such a position runs directly contrary to the kind of legal debate we see in this issue.

Our legal issue is simple: can a ghost testify in court? In particular, can the ghost of a murdered man testify at his own murder trial? This comic has it that the MU's answer is "no." That the dead have no rights, and that only living persons (or persons who may live again one day) may testify in court.

Once again, it's an issue real courts don't have to tackle, because it's inherently supernatural. The closest we get to such a restriction is that the rules tend to refer to witnesses as "persons." The courts have never formulated any rule requiring witnesses to be alive, because there's never been any alternative to beg the question.

So where does the Marvel Universe get such a rule? This is a universe where the courts would regularly grapple with non-humans. Let's ignore the obvious extraterrestrials and secondary earth races (e.g. Inhumans, mole men, etc.). Take Vision, the robot. Or Wonder Man, who at one point was essentially a post-human bundle of energy. Or Warlock, the sentient computer. Or Douglock, who (IIRC) was more or less Doug Ramsey's mind "reincarnated" into Warlock's tech body. And does Marvel have an equivalent of Deadman, someone who interacts with others by possessing people?

These are the kind of circumstances that the MU courts would be ironing out from day one. And I can't think of any legal principles that would keep them from testifying in a real-world court. They're competent, they're capable of giving intelligent and informed responses, and they can be cross-examined. There's nothing to distinguish them from a normal human witness aside from what their bodies are made of. And the same can be said of Bailey Briggs.

But none of them fit the standard that seems to be on display in this comic, which seems to suggest that none of those characters would be allowed to testify in an MU court. Either that, or they've developed some weird jurisprudence that allows you to testify if you return from the dead as purple energy or as a reincarnated robot, but not as a simple ghost.

It smacks of discrimination against ghosts, frankly.

So for all the hoopla on the page, I honestly can't imagine this question being a big deal in the Marvel Universe. And even if this was the first time it came up, only allowing him to testify because "he might rejoin the living one day" is just not the best reasoning.

Plus, for the record, I can think of at least one right that a dead man possesses: his right to property. That's why we have estates. If the dead didn't retain a legal interest in the property they left behind, determining inheritances and future ownership would be a lot more difficult.

Finally, the procedural stuff. A few panels before the defense calls Ben Grimm to the stand, the setting is established as "Monday. Ten minutes before the Bailey Briggs murder trial." There's no indication of any significant jump in time, so why is the defense calling witnesses early on the first day of a death penalty trial?

Second, there's an amusing panel where a court officer complains that he's having trouble swearing Briggs in, because Briggs' hand just passes through the Bible. Admittedly, it makes for a cute scene. But unless New York courts are substantially more archaic in this respect than down here in Georgia, witnesses aren't required to place their hand on a Bible anymore. Normally, the witness just raises his right hand.

Third, the final sequence of the comic doesn't add up procedurally. What makes it even odder is that the reasons why it doesn't add up are actually stated in the comic. After Briggs' ghost accuses his ex in the courtroom, the police decide to interrogate her. Jen watches this questioning, and chats with Mallory Book. Mallory points out "The case is closed...Reasonable doubt is in the bag. We've won." Jen suggests that Briggs' allegation doesn't sound right, and that they should investigate his claim.

(Apparently, this means that they didn't bother to find out what their own witness was going to testify to until he said it in court. Sloppy lawyering.)

Mallory says that's not necessary, and Jen replies:

So they go investigate, and afterwards (the captions specify that only hours have passed), we see Mr. Newton say "But I got off! The jury said I was innocent!"

How a death penalty case got all the way to a jury verdict in one day is amazing. Especially when Jen and Mallory cut out to investigate Briggs' claim. Then again, this is a case that had defense witnesses on the first day.

But more importantly, if the jury did manage to return a not guilty verdict, then why was Jen able to worry Mallory that they could still lose the case? If the jury's made its decision and sided with the defendant, then nothing the prosecutor does can undo that.

Next issue: Spider-Man v. J. Jonah Jameson